Already reeling under crisis, hospitals and health departments are struggling to meet demand
Rochelle Valensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday that the number of Covid-19 cases increased by nearly 60% this week, with the majority being caused by Omicron. 710 million tests were conducted in the previous week as compared to 688 million tests in the week ended December 9.
People across the country channeled their anger on social media, detailing their often fruitless searches for tests at government sites, drugstores, hospitals and even fire departments. Helicopters dispatched by local news broadcasts showed crowded testing sites on the ground below, and friends sent each other looking for information about where at-home testing kits might be available.
“America is once again a day late and a dollar short of responding to the pandemic,” said Larry Levitt, executive vice president of health policy at the San Francisco-based Kaiser Family Foundation. With Omicron booming holiday travel and testing centers closing, he called the current situation a test perfect storm.
In West Palm Beach, Fla., at times people waited four hours in their cars for testing, with police urging motorists to fill their tanks, use the bathroom, and pack water and snacks before lining up.
Hospitals and health departments struggled to keep up with demand, with some turning back people coming to emergency departments looking for tests so they could travel or return to work.
“Emergency rooms are overwhelmed, please do not go to the ER for a COVID-19 test,” the Tippecanoe County Health Department in Lafayette, Ind. said in a Facebook post.
Many hospitals, drugstores and testing facilities said they were operating with fewer staff because employees were sick or in isolation or quarantine. CityMD Urgent Care, which operates 153 clinics in the New York City metro area, said this week it was temporarily closing about 30 facilities “to preserve our ability to staff our sites.” CVS limited the number of tests an individual buyer could purchase to six, Walgreens to four.
President Biden said on December 21 that the US will buy 500 million tests, which consumers will be able to get for free through a website that will launch in January.
This timeline provides little comfort to states and cities that are already seeing record demand for testing in overcrowded and under-staffed hospitals and struggling to accommodate additional COVID-19 patients.
The federal government should have started planning for increased testing demand weeks or months earlier, Levitt said.
“Omicron may be mild, but healthcare is already on the verge of collapse in some parts of the country,” he said. “Uncontrolled spread means more people need hospital care and more health workers are sick who are unable to care for them.”
President Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, urged people to avoid large gatherings on New Year’s Eve in light of the surge.
With test kits sold out or unavailable in many drugstores and online retailers, a secondary market for the kits has popped up on eBay, the Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist. Some vendors were offering kits for up to five times the normal retail price.
In Raleigh, NC, cars lined up hours before sunrise on Wednesday to wait for the opening of a testing site popular with residents of the state’s Wake County, where more than a million people live.
“Yesterday I was scared to be around my granddaughter, and my family is my life,” said 54-year-old postal worker Anita Romain, who was waiting in her car in a line nearly a mile long. She was accompanied by her granddaughter, 14-year-old Nia, whom she said was feeling pain and fatigue since a recent trip to New York City. The family member with whom she stayed there had tested positive.
Wake County spokeswoman Leah Holdren said the county expects demand for the tests to remain in place for weeks, noting that the highest demand during last year’s holiday season came on January 11, when 7,887 tests were conducted. That time coincided with returning to work for many employees and campus for many students, she said. He said the county conducted 13,459 tests on Monday.
He said the county is consulting with the state on opening a large-scale testing site at a hockey field and a minor-league baseball stadium in the Raleigh metro area later this week.
Suppliers of rapid tests said they expect an even greater demand for tests after the holidays, as workers return to offices, schools and other workplaces where COVID-19 testing is encouraged or required.
“The need is going through the roof,” said Gordon Thompson, chief executive officer of Westnet Inc. of Canton, Mass., which distributes COVID-19 tests to municipalities, health centers and universities. He said the current demand for tests echoed the rush for face masks and other protective gear earlier in the pandemic.
“What happened from March to December 2020 with masks, gloves and hand sanitisers is now happening with rapid test kits,” he said.
In New York City, City Winery, a restaurant and concert venue, responded to a recent Omicron increase by requiring customers to show not only proof of vaccination, as required by the city, but a negative COVID-19 test. Was also. Soon restaurants will also require proof of a booster shot.
The venue’s chief executive, Michael Dorf, said two months ago they ordered about 5,000 test kits and were offering them free of charge to customers who are unable to get tested elsewhere. “What we are sharing is what we have,” he said.
Some public officials and health advocates said the high cost of testing and the lack of testing by sites that cater to people with the time and means has been made worse.
“It’s a big problem,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “It is a mitigation strategy that is cost-prohibitive for many of our vulnerable populations.”
The commission has been working to increase access to free rapid tests and has recently distributed 180,000 test kits over three days to residents of the area through libraries, schools and community centers. The commission is distributing more tests to elderly people, frontline workers and people with disabilities.
Melanie Golembiewski, a family-medicine physician at Neighborhood Family Practice, a federally qualified health center that works with an underserved population in Cleveland, said many people found it hard to access drive-thru testing sites.
“Many of our patients are putting out fires daily,” she said. “These preventive health measures are not high on the list. Getting off work, transportation is hard. Language is often a barrier.”
Of the 50 patients the clinic tested this week, 20 were positive for Covid-19.
—Jennifer Levitz contributed to this article.